born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967.  That, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, almost certainly many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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toros, toros, toros

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The Toronto Toros began their brief life in the World Hockey Association as the Ottawa Nationals, and they ended it as Birmingham, Alabama’s own Bulls. The Toros played just three seasons, starting in the fall of 1973. They were gone by 1976. Their best year was that first one, when they played in the division finals, before losing to the Chicago Cougars.

This weekend, the drove of elder Toro alumni that gathered for a private reunion at the Toronto home of historian and collector Mike Wilson included Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson, Vaclav Nedomansky, Wayne Carleton, Gilles Gratton, and Rick Vaive. Herewith, a look back at some Toro luminaries and some of their selected milestones.

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June, 1973

A group of businessman headed by John F. Bassett had bought the Nationals for $1.8-million. The players they inherited included rising talents like Tom Simpson and Gavin Kirk as well as veterans like Les Binkley. It wasn’t long before the team was introducing itself to the city it was now calling home.

While Toros doesn’t have the euphemistic ring to it Bassett Hounds had, it was market-tested from a hatful of 80 different names, including Twinkies and Tweedies.

The color combination was the survivor of 23 combinations, but it put the Toros in direct competition with league rivals Winnipeg Jets. However, there will be no conflict in color schemes, because road uniforms are a strong contrast to home uniforms.

There had been anticipation that Bassett was about to reveal the signing of Darryl Sittler, or Paulin Bordeleau, or Syl Apps — or even announce the site of their home games — but he could reveal nothing new on these subjects.

• Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1973

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July, 1973

The Toros did find a home: Varsity Arena (or as The Globe and Mail had it in an early summer story, “Variety Arena”). A month into the team’s history, Bassett announced that they’d sold approximately 2,400 season’s tickets for a rink with a capacity of 4,800.

“That’s pretty encouraging.”

The Toros have been unable to tempt any player into abandoning the National Hockey League, although they had Darryl Sittler wavering for a while. Perhaps they were consoled in that they helped make him a rich man. He signed with Toronto Maple Leafs, supposedly for $750,000.

There were rumors that the Toros might try to sign Alex Delvecchio, 42-year-old centre of Detroit Red Wings.

“We’re not interested in Delvecchio,” said Bassett. “I’m not denigrating him as a player but we did very well in the draft and we think we’re all right.”

In the same article, Bassett shared his vision of the future, which turned out to be more or less on the money, give or take four years:

He assumes it is evitable that the WHA will merge with the NHL. He figures this will happen within two years, “at the very outside.”

• The Globe and Mail, July 26, 1973

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October, 1973

The Toros played their first game, in Toronto, at Varsity Arena, a 4-4 tie with the Chicago Cougars.

After four years of looking at a pillar in Maple Leaf Gardens, Michael Lynch “decided to pack it in and come down here.”

“Here” was little Varsity Arena, all spruced up with shiny red paint last night to welcome 4,753 hockey fans and The Toronto Toros, the World Hockey Association’s alternative to the Leafs.

It was the Toros’ first night in Toronto, an event quite unlike Hockey Night in Canada, which for people like Michael Lynch was just fine.

Bob Garbutt, 26, was there “because I think the Leafs have ripped off the citizens of Toronto long enough. They’re getting too big for Toronto. The city is going to win this team [sic].”

“The Leafs have become too sophisticated,” added Bill McQuaid, 25. “I think this league’s got a good chance of going places — and I like to back an underdog.”

• Elaine Carey, The Toronto Star, October 8, 1973

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June 1974

All-Canadian hero Paul Henderson, 31, signed on for a five-year term with the team. That same month, 36-year-old Frank Mahovlich signed a four-year deal. His terms were said to amount to $1-million of the course of the contract. Henderson wasn’t talking about his:

He refused to disclose the financial terms of his contract, but said, “I’m not making a million dollars.”

• Associated Press, June 11, 1974

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July, 1974

When the Toros added another player that summer, The Toronto Star made room on its front page for the news, with a story headlined “Czechs’ Gordie Howe defects to the Toros.”

His name is Vaclav Nedomansky and he’s known in international hockey as Big Ned.

He’s 30 years old, he’s a centre and he has been an amateur star for 12 years, the latter years as captain of the Czech national team.

Ron Bull, information officer with Manpower and Immigration in Toronto, said today that Nedomansky is in Canada as a legitimate landed immigrant, not as one seeking political asylum.

“He was on holiday in Switzerland and while there applied to Swiss authorities for asylum,” Bull explained. “During this period he also applied to the Canadian immigration office for landed immigrant status.

“The office in Berne is not a busy one and because of this his application was processed quickly,” Bull said.

“He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”

• The Toronto Star, July 18, 1974

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October, 1974

The Toros eventually moved from Varsity Arena over to a Carleton Street address, where they rented Leaf ice from Leaf owner Harold Ballard.

A crowd of 14,141 turned out at Maple Leaf Gardens to see Hull and his Jets go against the Toros who emerged with a 3-1 victory.

“It really felt like a hockey game with all those people here,” said Toros winger Paul Henderson who has been accustomed to crowds of more than 16,000 when he played for the National League Toronto Maple Leafs until last year.

The Toros averaged a little more than 4,000 fans for their games last season at Varsity Arena and averaged about 8,000 in their first four games this season at the Gardens.

• Canadian Press, Ottawa Citizen, October 25, 1974

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March, 1975

The heart of a young Toros’ goaltender goes out to 50something former Leaf great Johnny Bower, who’s taking a turn in the practice nets for Toronto NHL team one day on Gardens ice.

If Bower looked behind him, back of the protective glass, he would see a young man with somewhat the air of a street punk passing by. He is Gilles Gratton, 22, who plays goal for Toronto’s WHA entry, the Toros, and is on the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $645,000. The Toros practised earlier, and Gratton is on his way to the parking lot; in his pocket, fingers play against the keys of a canary yellow Porsche 911-S Targa — value: $16,670 — which was provided by the Toros free of charge. Every two years he gets a new one; it’s in his contract. When Maple Leaf practice is over Johnny Bower will change into gray flannel slacks and a blue Maple Leaf blazer. The blazer is provided.

“Just look at him, Gratton says, obviously impressed with Bower’s ancient abilities. “I’ll never be half the goaltender he was. But I’ll make more in the next five years than he made in his life. All he ever he had was hockey — it was his work, man, and that’s why he couldn’t walk away from it. I see somebody like Bower playing and it makes me sad. For him there was nothing else.”

• Roy MacGregor, Ottawa Citizen, March 27, 1975

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December, 1975

Nedomansky made an impression in his first North American season, though perhaps not quite the one that he and everyone else had hoped for.

“We were somewhat disappointed,” says former Toros general manager Buck Houle, fired at the start of this season in a front-office shuffle. We thought he’d get at least 50 goals, probably more. We thought he’d show more leadership than he did. Mind you, there were adjustments for him. It was all new. Still, we thought he could have been more aggressive than he was.

“He’s the greatest centre in hockey,” says Toro owner Johnny F. Bassett, “but if he used the body more, he’d have been even better.”

“Vaclav was better in Czechoslovakia,” says Zoltan Sausik, a Toronto businessman and Czech Canadian who knew Big Ned back home. “Here he seemed lost sometimes. He must play the Canadian way more. He must hit more, he must shoot more.”

Big Ned smiles, shakes his head. “You must understand, it is much different for me,” he says in his fast-improving English. “The ice is much smaller. I turn around and — boom — there are the boards. Everybody thinks I must be a big star, I must score many goals. Why? Hockey is for six players, not one player. Here it is one player all the time. Always he wants to keep the puck and score the goal because the scoring championship is a big, big thing. It is too big. It is not important what one player does. For me, it is better to do what is good for the team, not for me. You understand? Hitting is the same. I can be rough too but hockey is hitting puck with the stick — not hitting the player.”

• Earl McRae, Montreal Gazette, December 5, 1975

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 April, 1976

Talk of the Toros’ demise — or at least, their departure — circulated for months.

“I just don’t know,” Bassett said when asked if the Toros would be back at Maple Leaf Gardens next season. There had been talk that the team might move to Hollywood, Fla., if attendance at home games did not pick up. The Toros played to much larger crowds after the rumors of the move were reported.

• Associated Press, April 5, 1976

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May, 1976

The end came quickly. Way to go, Blue Jays.

The Toronto Toros are leaving town.

The team’s last-ditch attempt to gain a foothold on the local hockey market was abandoned yesterday, three seasons and about $4 million in losses after the World Hockey Association club burst onto the Toronto scene as the alternative to the Maple Leafs.

Heavy financial losses — $1.5 million on last season’s operations alone — plus failure of a recent season ticket drive, were principal factors in team president Johnny Bassett’s decision to move the franchise.

Bassett listed the arrival of major league baseball in Toronto and the World Cup hockey tournament to be played next fall as factors in his decision to move.

• Jim Kernaghan, The Toronto Star, May 5, 1976

reading requiem

With the death of Ottawa Sun columnist Earl McRae at 69 on Saturday, this week’s required reading is going to have to be Requiem For Reggie (Chimo). I have to say I haven’t seen anything of McRae’s more recent than that 1977 collection of his sportswriting, but I’ll be happy to exalt his memory based on re-reading his 1970 profile of NHL goal judge Eddie Mepham alone. In his spry introduction, Trent Frayne measures McRae’s acuity as a writer by how many of his subjects — including Derek Sanderson, Reggie Fleming, and Phil Esposito — were so startled by his perception in what he’d written about them, they refused to talk to him ever again. Continue reading